- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2011

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — When Antonio Lawton heard the sirens blare March 11, he realized that something wasn’t right. Crescent City tests its tsunami warning system on the first Tuesday of the month. This was a Friday.

“Every first Tuesday of every month at 10 in the morning, the sirens go off. It’s just a test,” said Mr. Lawton, a commercial fisherman who has lived here for 27 years. “I said, ‘Well, this ain’t a warning.’ “

In a few hours, this remote coastal community of about 7,500 would be slammed by a series of tsunami surges triggered by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that had just devastated Japan. The rushing waves would inundate the beach, sink 16 boats and damage 67 others, dump tons of sand into the harbor and destroy much of the harbor’s infrastructure with an estimated repair cost of $25 million.

Just one day shy of three months since the earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan, the coastal California town lives with the realization that, given the topography and the stresses inexorably building up in the Earth’s crust just offshore, its turn could come at any moment. But if any community in North America can be described as tsunami-ready, it’s Crescent City.

Practice, practice, practice

The eight warning sirens are just the beginning. This town prepares for tsunamis like Yellowstone National Park prepares for bears. Residents post maps in every shop and hotel showing which areas of town are safe from tidal surges and which aren’t. They conduct drills. They practice evacuations. They are exceptionally well-informed about earthquake activity along the Pacific Rim.

Almost exactly a year before the March 11 tsunami, Del Norte County held what may be the first evacuation drill of an entire community. Crescent City residents were asked to leave their homes and businesses at the sound of the sirens and move to tsunami-safe zones.

“We sounded the sirens, we had the Civil Air Patrol fly overhead, we had emergency alerts go across the TV, the radio,” said Cindy Henderson, Del Norte County emergency preparedness manager. “We had over 1,000 people walk out of the evacuation zone voluntarily, which was a really good exercise because when this disaster came up, we are already able to go. We already had the zones mapped up, and everybody knew whether they were in the zone or not.”

Their diligence was rewarded in the hours before the March 11 tsunami. By the time the first tidal surge struck at 7:15 a.m., every boat capable of leaving the harbor had done so. Anyone living or working in the inundation zone had been evacuated two hours earlier.

The tsunami sucked so much water out of the harbor that “you could see ducks on the bottom of the harbor walking,” said Ms. Henderson.

The ocean blasted back minutes later in the form of 8-foot waves that battered the remaining vessels and swept ominously toward town. One person died in the disaster, but it wasn’t in Crescent City. A young man was swept out to sea about 20 miles from town near the Klamath River after he disregarded the advice of others and ventured too close to the tide.

Lori Dengler, chairwoman of the geology and oceanography departments at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., commended Crescent City for its response to the crisis.

“We had a lot of damage, we unfortunately had one person who died, so it wasn’t a complete success,” said Ms. Dengler, who has written extensively on tsunamis. “But what was a success, particularly for Crescent City, was that the commercial fleet basically survived. … Not all of the ports and harbors in California had as organized a plan as Crescent City did as far as making sure people were evacuated, people were out of harm’s way.”

History’s painful lesson

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